When Real Time is slower than turn based
Publisher Iceberg Interactive is clearly trying to corner the market on 4x games, where you expand, explore, exploit and exterminate while ruling a stellar empire. This review is of Star Drive, but Iceberg also publishes Endless Space (which recently released a must-have expansion, if you like the original) and a few other games in this same genre.
4x a fun genre, though generally for players that enjoy more cerebral games. First person shooter fans are generally not invited, but just as most fans of Call of Duty have also played Battlefield, 4x players generally play all the games in the genre… so maybe Iceberg is on to something by trying to be its own competition in the 4x category.
“It’s a very solid game, but never really pulled me in…”
As something of a niche genre, it’s forever trying to become mainstream. Star Drive tries to do it by being a “real time” game, thus increasing the action, hopefully attracting fans of shooters as well as real time strategy games. It’s a very solid game, but never really pulled me in enough to make me want to play 5 more minutes, even when it was totally time for bed.
Part of the issue is the real time; play is in 5 second increments. Planets produce every five seconds, orders are executed with at most a 5 second delay, and so on. While usually real time games cause an information overload that can only be resolved by pausing the game all the time (a real negative), that totally doesn’t happen here. That would be good, but I often found myself sitting around waiting for time to pass, more annoying for me than the equivalent in a turn based game, hitting “next turn” until something happens. One’s mileage may vary on this.
The game premise is vanilla: you’re in a universe. Your race has just discovered space travel, at the same time as other races (that you don’t know about). Your goal is to dominate everything.
Mostly, you’re going to colonize planets. It’s nicely done, just click on the button, and the nearest colony ship will get to it. If you don’t have a colony ship, the best planet will build a ship and automatically colonize… in a real time game, this kind of automation is great.
Colonies build up, but generally need resources. So you’ll need to build freighters, which again can automatically resupply colonies with what they need. Planets cover the usual range from Barren to Jungle; in the former case, you’ll probably want to transport food. Freighters will do their best without instructions, but you can set up specific routes to maximize efficiency or guarantee that an important planet is supplied. Unfortunately, more hostile worlds need ‘domes’ to be built before you can build the buildings, an unfortunate micromanagement line item; by the time you’ve put up enough domes to cover a planet (not that you’ll need to do this), you’ll generally have terraform options that are better anyway. It probably would have been better to just have a construction penalty than require domes first, but that’s just a quibble.
Research is also vanilla. Pick what you want to learn, assign your points, and then it just happens… you can get much of what there is to see in just one game, which really cuts into the replay value. It’s a slick enough implementation. There is a “secret” tech tree, but it’s a disaster. You research it, unload monsters that attack you… and you can repeat that as much as you want. I have no idea what the point is.
Diplomacy options are also straight up, but for one nice addition: Federation. If you can get on friendly enough terms with an alien race, they’ll join you as a Federation, basically “surrendering” everything to you instantly and irrevocably. It’s a great way to double your empire, although if you’re pounding an enemy, it can join with a different faction, dramatically swaying the tide of war. Kudos is also given to the animations and speech during diplomacy; while the alien races have the same feel everywhere else in the game, their diplomats are fun to talk to, at least for a while.
Ship design and combat is supposed to be the heart of the system, but other than being very pretty, doesn’t have much to offer. There are options for various fleet formations, and you can design ships. Unfortunately, combat is real time, which means you’re generally better off just building lots of ships and slamming them into the enemy. Ships don’t maneuver fast enough to gain any real benefit from micromanagement, and you’ll have better things to do than watch a battle. Ship design could be fun, but the more fun the component, the less options you have on where to put it. The default designs are pretty close to optimal, and changing them around is just too hard to keep track of after they’ve been built, formed into a fleet, and ordered into battle.
Overall, this isn’t a bad game, and it never crashed. But I just found the depth minimal. If you’ve totally played out Endless Space or are just looking for another 4x title, this one is fun for a little while… but after a couple games I’d seen everything worth seeing. This game would be a classic title if it came out 20 years ago (even if the solid graphics were toned down), but ultimately it’s just not as good as the other games out right now.